Here’s the thing about Palo Alto, the first feature by director Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece, Francis’s granddaughter): On the one hand it is a very confident and intriguing debut for yet another very talented member of the Coppola clan, on the other, there are many moments throughout the movie where all of its greatness comes to a halt thanks to a number of moments that slightly, but rather annoyingly, go on the wrong side of the line between giving enough information and giving too much information about how we are supposed to interpret the movie.
Palo Alto is based on a series of short stories written by jack of all trades James Franco (who also acts in this movie as a divorced high school soccer coach). The movie focuses on the lives of four bored and aimless high schoolers living in Palo Alto, California. Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val’s son) and April (Emma Roberts) like each other, but they can’t find the way to express their emotions to each other. Ted’s troubled friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is that kid who has very destructive impulses, such as driving his car into a wall, or cutting down trees with power tools. The last of the teenager protagonists is Emily (Zoe Levin), who is known in the school for being a “whore”, in the sense that she would engage in sexual activities with almost any boy who asks her to.
Although they mostly don’t talk about it, all these kids feature the feeling of deep emptiness that has characterized most of the heroines in the movies of Gia’s aunt Sofia. There are many similarities between the two filmmakers, from the visual style (the cinematography by Autumn Durald is as gorgeous and effective as that of any of Sofia’s movies) to some elements of the thematic structure. For example, the characters in Palo Alto, as in many of Sofia’s movies, are surrounded by a world that doesn’t seem to have either the time or care as to be concerned with their struggles. The adults in this movie are all as childish and self-centered as the kids, while sporting lesser levels of angst.
The focus on privileged white kids might seem tired, but Palo Alto features that extra level authenticity that is very easy to spot when a movie about high school is not trying to sell itself to a teenage audience, but actually say something about the years between childhood and adulthood. After all, if there is a moment in life in which the kind of conflicts that are often dismissed as “white people problems” justifiably feel like the most important and dramatic of plot points, it’s one’s teenage years. So, what is authentic about Palo Alto? Well, you have the casting, which very impressively consists of people that look and sound like high schoolers. I was also particularly interested in the character of Emily, which feels like the type of girl who hasn’t been explored that much in cinema (a comedic take of that kind of character is Easy A, which while featuring a fantastic performance by Emma Stone, isn’t that great of a movie).
Above everything else, though, what rings truest about this movie is its treatment of time and change in the characters’ journeys. Even if a lot is happening in the personal lives of these teens, very little changes around them. Life goes on as usual in a very realistic way. High school is a factory for needless drama, but the world around it always remains the same, and the life of these aimless teenagers remains as lifeless as it always was, even if their inner world might have changed quite a bit by the end of the movie.
There is, however, a problem I have with Palo Alto. And it’s that for all its visual proficiency, the movie has a tendency to over-explain what is going on inside its characters minds. We have seen enough movies and read enough young adult literature that just observing these kids is enough to know what is going on with them. And yet, there are many moments in which the come out to say exactly what we are supposed to be thinking about through certain lines of dialogue. Moments like when James Franco’s character lectures April on the idea that everyone does everything for a reason even if they don’t know why, and when Fred asks Emily not only for sex, but for signs of actual affection.
This is frustrating because, at its best, Palo Alto can tell all the same things with a few images. It’s true that the movie also indulges in on-the-nose imagery, as when it focuses on toys or other classic elements of childhood while the characters are engaging in sexual activity, but even if they are a little too obvious, these images speak in a much louder and effective way than any piece of dialogue in the movie. At the end, even if I don’t love Palo Alto, it shows enough interesting filmmaking as to have me excited for what Gia Coppola will do next, and what kind of stories she will be interested in telling in the future.
Grade: 6 out of 10